Water intensive consumer products

A discussion from our thread on almond milk stirred a point of interest around which consumer products are water intensive. We also have this topic focused on water management in the Murray Darling Basin.

According to the ABS, agriculture is by far our most significant industry when it comes to water consumption. While this is a UK article, it gives a simplified breakdown of which sectors within various industries use the most water.

Most of us will use at least some of these products by necessity in our everyday lives. How we consumer water is complex, so please be respectful to one another when discussing the use of these products. It may be useful to discuss what choices we can make to reduce or improve our impact on water consumption, and it’s also welcome to discuss innovations and improvements either in Australia or overseas that can positively effect the amount of water we use.

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For water intensity almonds are up there with rice.
10-12Ml per hectare.
Interesting choice - almonds (3t/ha) or rice (10t/ha)?

Note:
Almond production is highly mechanised - low labour requirement.

Almond Yields vary 2.0-3.5t/ha (kernel basis).
IE 3-6 litres per harvested kernel before processing losses of whole kernels.

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Obviously why rice and not almonds are the staple diet of a large percentage of the global population.

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Not obvious why Almonds and not rice or wheat or …

Almonds are 10-20 times more valuable than rice.
And,
Growers only need to wait 3 years for the first crop, which usually earns more than the costs of establishment (land purchase excluded).

Macadamias grown locally need typically 6-7 years to start producing and 11-12years before recovering all establishment and maintenance costs. Water needs are modest when grown on the coast, where they are native.

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I have a couple of almond trees here, and they do produce a good number of nuts, although swarms of Cockatoos get most of them. I’ve calculated that in 2020 they had water equivalent to 10.6ML/ha, which does sound like a big irrigation requirement, however, it all fell from the sky!
If all that water had to be supplied from a river or bore, then perhaps the almonds are being grown in the wrong place, much the same as rice in the Riverina, where it doesn’t rain enough to grow rice without irrigation.
I do enjoy quite a bit of organic almond (also rice and soy) milk, and prefer all 3 over cows milk.

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Definitely the wrong place, as they apparently die if not irrigated, (not really, they just don’t produce so it may suit the industry to say so). The irrigation demands on top of any rainfall are typically 10-12 Ml/ha. IE 1400-1500mm total natural annual rainfall assuming it all comes at the right time of the year. Rainfall Mildura way averages less than 300mm p.a.

There were 772 million reasons 2019-20 why Australia exports so much of its valuable water, ($772M value of exported almonds).

Most of the Aussie crop is not grown for domestic consumption. It is exported. Current plantings will increase annual production by 50% to 160,000t pa.

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it takes 5 times as much water as hemp ,5 times as much fertilizer than hemp,it ll goes to China and largely grown by Chinese companies,I was a farmer in the UK on much better soil yet all the trace elements were being drained,
They grow the almonds to 16 liters of water for one nut ITS A CRIME
BAN ALMONDS

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Please explain how it takes 16 l of water per nut. Is this in all conditions or just in deserts?

I cannot see that banning any particular product is sensible or reasonable. A better approach, which also covers other thirsty crops like rice and cotton, is to have a functional water market so that commercial decisions include the real cost of resources.

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Hi @oger and welcome back

I have moved your post into the thread about Almond Milk that contains the posts about the cost of producing those Almonds.

I understand the first part of your post is about Cotton growing, you might like to post about your concerns in the topic Water Security, Murray Darling Basin which starts with a post that notes the large use of water in the growing of Cotton.

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From the article I posted above.

“A single almond needs about 12 litres of water to grow”.

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OK the figures behind the article come out at about 12 l per kernel but not 16.

My comment is still very relevant - that banning one product is hardly sensible. Creating a proper resource market is the way to go.

The linked article also points out the fallacy of saying because x amount of water is employed producing a given crop that the water applied has no other use, that somehow it disappears and does nothing more.

The argument that the profit all goes overseas has been around in various contexts since Adam was in short pants. Like so many other such patriotic propositions it asks the next question: if growing almonds is so profitable why do not more locals do it, why do they sell their land and water licenses to outsiders instead?

If you want to control who runs each industry and which industries are favoured over others you need a command and control economy. Just like the Chinese. But we don’t want to do things their way! Confusing isn’t it.

Perhaps the answer is that having collectively allowed (or is it designed?) the Murray Darling Basin Plan to be a complete shambles the Feds and States are now seeing more than one perverse outcome.

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I saw on an ABC program that a dairy farmer was paying an exorbitant sum to have tanker trucks delivering water because he was denied extraction even tho the water flowed past his farm, There were cotton and almond wars in the us during the sixties

Did I mention that water management in the MDB was hopeless? Without knowing the detail it is hard to say why that farmer had a problem. If you are suggesting that everyone on a river should be able to pull whatever water they want, I think that kind of thinking was part of the how the MDB got into such a terrible state.

Water falls from the sky and then runs away to the sea so it ought to be free - right? No. It is a limited resource that needs to be used wisely.

Well if you got all dem guns you gotta shoot em off sometime.

Perhaps instead of shooting each other getting our elected representatives to work together and fix the MDB is the answer.

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A mate who lives in Gladstone said that the staff at the aluminium refinery there call aluminium “solidified Electricity”.

Perhaps almonds should be called “solidified water” or “dehydrated water”.

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Challenging science:
Solidified and highly compressed water? Nuclear physics and black holes required. :radioactive:

On topic:
For total water used, it’s necessary to add irrigation volumes to the natural fall on the orchard. My listed sources suggest overall

The processing losses of whole kernels are apparently very high with yields of table grade kernels around 30-40%. Hence the higher water numbers quoted are a little erroneous. The losses are not really lost. They go to make other products including almond flour and milk. There is also post processing income from sale of the hull/shell as stock feed.

One needs to remember all plants need water to grow, flower and reproduce/fruit. Almonds are no different.

While some almonds are irrigated (mainly using water efficient drip irrigation), it doesn’t mean the 12L is only from irrigation. Some almonds are dryland crops (only grow using rainfall and available soil moisture), while others are irrigated to supplement rainfall deficits to maximise yield.

The 12L is an arbitrary number unless one knows where the water comes from both temporally and locationally.

It is also worth noting that tree crops (nuts, fruits etc) have water consumption compared to cereals, pulses and such like. Trees are efficient in water consumption and have relatively low yields per hectare compared to other broad acre crops.

There is no reason to get one’s undies in a knot because of almond water consumption, as one might be surprised be the water consumed of many other crops. This gives an indication of some common crops…

Crop

Crop water need
(mm/total growing period)

Alfalfa: 800-1600
Banana: 1200-2200
Barley/Oats/Wheat: 450-650
Bean 300-500
Cabbage: 350-500
Citrus: 900-1200
Cotton: 700-1300
Maize: 500-800
Melon: 400-600
Onion: 350-550
Peanut: 500-700
Pea: 350-500
Pepper: 600-900
Potato: 500-700
Rice (paddy): 450-700
Sorghum/Millet: 450-650
Soybean: 450-700
Sugarbeet: 550-750
Sugarcane: 1500-2500
Sunflower: 600-1000
Tomato: 400-800
(Source).

This website also has some interesting data as well…

And

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Interesting in they seem to be more in need of water than not,

There is a linked assessment from ‘dry land California’ in the prior post and several Aussie sources in associated posts. Almonds require a Mediterranean climate, which is very easy to replicate in the MIA. It rains little, is hot and dry, and farms can irrigate as necessary to reproduce ideal growing conditions. It’s why others don’t grow almonds in coastal Qld where the required 1400-1500mm of optimal annual rainfall is easy to find. It’s too humid and rain falls mostly at the wrong time of the year. Same problems for olives.

The Australian industry reports are consistent in the need for high levels of irrigation if the prior posted links are followed. Perhaps there are others not noted.

Not at all. It’s great economics if you don’t value water for what it is truely worth to the nation and the environment. We are not about to starve if we stop growing them. They are not essential to the Aussie domestic food chain. Where is there any justification?

P.S.
Per the list of rainfall required,
Bananas 1200-2200mm
and
Sugar Cane 1500-2500mm

Are the only two crops that require more than Almond Trees 1400-1500mm.

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The Waterfootprint indicates almonds water footprint is around a gallon (~4L) per nut not the 12L indicated in the media article.

Notwithstanding this, if one gets their undies in a knot about almonds because

and concerned about their water footprint, I hope they don’t consume coffee etc. The water footprint of a cup of coffee is 38 gallons (~145L), can of soft drink (~175L) or a glass if wine (~145L). Even a simple salad has a footprint of ~80L.

Almonds’ footprint looks quite small in comparison, especially when one considers the number of almonds consumed on average per person each year compared to other commodities.

A context of using local resources to maximum advantage, and not creating a perverse advantage to any inefficient crop in the local context (or industry such as bottled water!) is an interesting discussion here, that flowed on from Almond milk as an end-product.

Perhaps a topic titled ‘Water Management’ could be a catch all for that discussion?

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Following through the discussion over the prior posts in context:

  • For a table grade whole undamaged almond kernel it is around the higher figure. IE Australia needs approx 12l of water into almond production for every table grade kernel produced (premium product) or 360l of water for a handful (30 of).
  • For the harvested unprocessed products yield is 3-6l per hull/nut. The 4l estimate is also correct when considered on that basis.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone would grow almonds on the same scale if all the nuts were processed to flour, because of the inefficiency and high water use. Which is why the first and highest figure is most common. I looked at both Australian commercial growers guides as well as USA for background. There is sufficient Australian guidance not to look to the USA which has very different conditions (politics and environmental). They too have water problems.

It would be. Consumers face competing interests for Australia’s limited natural water resources. Agri-business and governments have a choice between the use of water resources to produce food for domestic consumption at the lowest cost - high security, or to enable export and cash crops easy access to the best and lowest cost land/water resources for profit. The latter pushes up the cost of food to the detriment of the community. It’s a similar consumer concern to the current discussion on the inflated cost of domestic gas supplies.

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